Bu-lat-lat (boo-lat-lat) verb: to search, probe, investigate, inquire; to unearth facts
Volume 2, Number 16 May 26 - June 1, 2002 Quezon City, Philippines
Bush Knew Of Hijack Threat
WASHINGTON, May 15, 2002
In the weeks before the Sept. 11 attacks, President Bush was told by U.S. intelligence that Osama bin Laden's terrorist network might hijack American airplanes, prompting the administration to issue a private warning to federal agencies, the White House acknowledged Wednesday night.
But officials said the president and U.S. intelligence did not know that suicide hijackers were plotting to use planes as missiles, as they did against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
"There has been long-standing speculation, shared with the president, about the potential of hijackings in the traditional sense," White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said. "We had general threats involving Osama bin Laden around the world and including in the United States."
He said the administration, acting on the scant information, notified the "appropriate agencies" last summer that hijackings were possible.
The development, first reported by CBS television, comes as congressional investigators intensify their study of whether the government failed to adequately respond to warnings of a suicide hijackings before Sept. 11. It is the first link between Mr. Bush and intelligence gathered before Sept. 11 about the attacks.
Fleischer would not discuss when or how the information was given to Mr. Bush, but a senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the president was made aware of the potential for hijackings of U.S. planes during one or more routine intelligence briefings last summer.
The CIA would not confirm what it told Mr. Bush, but a U.S. intelligence official, on condition of anonymity, said the CIA continuously informed policymakers throughout the summer before Sept. 11 that bin Laden and his network might try to harm U.S. interests and discussed a range of possibilities that included hijackings.
"That was among the many things that we talked about all the time as a potential terrorist threat," the intelligence official said, referring to hijackings.
"But when we talked about hijackings, we talked about that in the traditional sense of hijackings, not in the sense of somebody hijacking an aircraft and flying it into a building," the intelligence official said.
But there was no information that suggested hijackers would crash planes into American landmarks and there was no mention of a date, a CIA official said.
The information was based on intelligence obtained by the U.S. government, the official said, without specifying.
"I will tell you there was, of course, a general awareness of Osama bin Laden and threats around the world, including the United States; and if you recall, last summer we publicly alerted and gave a warning about potential threats on the Arabian peninsula," Fleischer said.
He said Mr. Bush had never been told about the potential for suicide hijackers steering the planes toward U.S targets.
Still, acting on the information the government did have, the administration "notified the appropriate agencies."
"I think that's one of the reasons that we saw the people who committed the 9/11 attacks use box cutters and plastic knives to get around America's system of protecting against hijackers," he said.
The Associated Press reported earlier this month that FBI headquarters did not act on a memo last July from its Arizona office warning there were a large number of Arabs seeking pilot, security and airport operations training at at least one U.S. flight school and which urged a check of all flight schools to identify more possible Middle Eastern students.
A section of that classified memo also makes a passing reference to Osama bin Laden, speculating that al-Qaeda and other such groups could organize such flight training, officials said. The officials said, however, that the memo offered no evidence bin Laden was behind the students that raised the concern.
Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., the Senate Intelligence Committee chairman, said through a spokesman Wednesday that the revelations in the memos marked an important discovery in Congress' investigation into why the FBI, CIA and other U.S. agencies failed to learn of and prevent the Sept. 11 plot.
"It represents a failure to connect the dots," said Graham spokesman Paul Anderson. "This was dismissed rather lightly at FBI headquarters."
The FBI also has faced tough questioning about whether it failed to act aggressively enough after arresting Zacarias Moussaoui, a Frenchman of Moroccan descent, in August after he raised concerns by seeking flight training at a Minnesota flight school.
Moussaoui has emerged as the lone defendant charged in the aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. He is charged with conspiring with bin Laden and the 19 suicide hijackers to attack Americans.
FBI Director Robert Mueller repeatedly has said he wished the FBI had acted more aggressively in addressing the Arizona and Minnesota leads but said nothing the FBI possessed before Sept. 11 pointed to the multiple-airliner hijacking plot.
Bush Was Warned bin Laden Wanted to Hijack Planes
By David E. Sanger
May 16, 2002
WASHINGTON, May 15 -- The White House said tonight that President Bush had been warned by American intelligence agencies in early August that Osama bin Laden was seeking to hijack aircraft but that the warnings did not contemplate the possibility that the hijackers would turn the planes into guided missiles for a terrorist attack.
"It is widely known that we had information that bin Laden wanted to attack the United States or United States interests abroad," Ari Fleischer, the president's press secretary, said this evening. "The president was also provided information about bin Laden wanting to engage in hijacking in the traditional pre-9/11 sense, not for the use of suicide bombing, not for the use of an airplane as a missile."
Nonetheless the revelation by the White House, made in response to a report about the intelligence warning this evening on CBS News, is bound to fuel Congressional demands for a deeper investigation into why American intelligence agencies and the Federal Bureau of Investigation had failed to put together individual pieces of evidence that, in retrospect, now seem to suggest what was coming.
In the past few days, government officials have acknowledged for the first time that an F.B.I. agent in Phoenix had urged the F.B.I. headquarters to investigate Middle Eastern men enrolled in American flight schools. That memorandum also cited Mr. bin Laden by name and suggested that his followers could use the schools to train for terror operations, officials who have seen the memorandum said.
Administration officials reached this evening said the warning given to Mr. Bush did not come from the F.B.I. or from the information developed by the Phoenix agent. Instead, it was provided as part of the C.I.A. briefing he is given each morning, suggesting that it was probably based on evidence gathered abroad.
The C.I.A. had been listening intently over the July 4 holiday last year, after what one investigator called "a lot of static in the system suggesting something was coming." But then the evidence disappeared as quickly as it had arisen, and by August, officials have said, little was heard from Al Qaeda.
The warning of the hijacking was given to the president at his ranch in Crawford, Tex., where he was on vacation.
Taken together, the news of the C.I.A. warning and the information developed separately by the F.B.I. explains Mr. Bush's anger after Sept. 11 that intelligence gathered on American soil and abroad was not being centrally analyzed and that the agencies were not working well together.
Several times he has told audiences that he is working on solving that problem, and these days he is briefed jointly by the F.B.I and the C.I.A., ensuring that each hears information from the other agency.
It was not clear this evening why the White House waited eight months after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington to reveal what Mr. Bush had been told.
But Mr. Fleischer noted that in the daily flow of intelligence information the president receives, the warning of what appeared to be the threat of a conventional hijacking was not as serious as it appears in retrospect. "We were a peacetime society, and the F.B.I. had a different mission," he said.
Mr. Fleischer said the information given to the president in Texas had prompted the administration to put law enforcement agencies on alert. But there was no public announcement.
Nonetheless, a senior administration official said tonight that there was speculation within the government that heightened security ‹ if it truly existed in August and September ‹ might have prompted the hijackers to use box cutters and plastic knives to avoid detection.
The C.I.A. warning might also explain why Mr. Bush's aides were so certain that Mr. bin Laden was behind the attacks almost as soon as they happened. "We never had any real doubt," one senior official involved in the crucial decisions at the White House on Sept. 11 said several months ago.
Until recently, Mr. Bush has deflected demands for a lengthy and detailed investigation into the intelligence failures surrounding the Sept. 11 attacks. White House officials were concerned that the investigation would feed into demands by Senator Richard C. Shelby, the Alabama Republican who is the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, for the replacement of George J. Tenet as director of central intelligence.
But the news that the hijacking warning was in the president's brief, which Mr. Tenet sees and approves, and that it was linked to Mr. bin Laden is almost certain to widen the scope of the investigation.
Already, several lawmakers who have read the Phoenix memorandum written by the F.B.I. agent have described it as the most significant document to emerge in Congressional inquiries into whether the government might have been warned about possible hijackings.
Now those investigators are almost certain to demand the details of the president's August briefing by the C.I.A. and may ask to hear about how that evidence was developed.